Black Femme Collective calls for creative nonfiction submissions from Black Queer Femme Storytellers engaging in the theme REST.

Milan Past Midnight

Jasmine Holmes
Visual art by Jasmine Holmes

 I’ve gotten good at telling travel stories. It’s all about the editing.

Jana and I stood at the entrance to Milan Central train station as security ushered out the last stragglers. Our legs ached from a day spent walking on uneven pavement, and our light summer clothing was proving to be insufficient for the cooler night air. We missed the last train back to Genoa. Several transportation strikes had put us far behind schedule, and public transit was no longer operating. 

No trains. No buses. And no taxis with less than a six-hundred-dollar fare. As we watched a cab pull away without us, Jana cursed and started pacing. We saw a few other riders come and go as we came to terms with the fact that we were stranded in the city for the night. Jana began ranting about the wasted money that had been spent on train tickets and the unlikelihood of a refund. I began searching for nearby hotels on my phone. 

No place in the surrounding area would accept us. Everywhere we called gave us the same spiel: No accommodations without passports. No, photocopies won’t do. No exceptions. Our passports were in the city we were desperately trying to get back to, and soon our walk towards a destination became an aimless stroll around the station. 

As we passed the front entrance for the second time, I noticed how closely we were being watched. Although the station was closed, it was far from deserted. Several people were loitering around the front, sitting alone or in groups. Some were settling into sleeping bags on the ground. Several were staring at us as we went. Almost all of them were men. After our third lap around the building, I saw their curiosity turn to calculation. I touched Jana’s arm gently, resisting the urge to grab her hand, and suggested we take our walk a bit further from the station. 

We hurried along. 

It was nearing 2 A.M. Our phones were dying. With no next-best-plan in sight, Jana grew quieter. She was a talker and a jokester, and her silence unsettled me. She squinted suspiciously at every person who passed by, biting her lip and keeping a firm hand on her bag. The weight of her camera equipment had transformed from a mild irritation to a source of anxiety. 

I tried to take stock of our surroundings, reading street signs that we passed and forming quick descriptions in my head of the men who made remarks at us in Italian. I had been prepared, in a way, for the unwanted attention. Prior to departing my Italian professor had warned me, with all the grace and kindness that a white woman could muster, that a Black girl like myself might be perceived as a prostitute, in certain circumstances. Something about the effects of African immigrants. More importantly, I should avoid such circumstances to the best of my ability.

These exact circumstances, specifically.

I understood just enough of the catcalls to avoid eye contact and quicken my pace, trying to seem as though we knew exactly where we were going. Jana walked a step closer to me than she had before. I hadn’t conveyed my professor’s warning to her. What good was it, really?

Fear was creating something palpable in the air between us—the desire to grab hold of each other, to soothe and be soothed by proximity and tenderness. My fingers itched with the restraint from touching her, and every so often she would look up at me with pleading, miserable eyes, gripping the arm she would normally have draped around my waist.

Arriving in Italy just before the Pulse nightclub shooting, news of the tragedy settled between us like a brick wall. It was unspoken—the way we went from interlocking our fingers as we stared into each other’s smiling eyes across cafe tables, to putting an almost professional distance between us whenever we found ourselves walking close enough together that the bare skin of our arms brushed. 

Eventually, we came to a park. There was a bench a few yards from the main road, and a young couple spread out on a blanket in the grass. It was reasonably well-lit by the nearby streetlamps and provided a clear view of the sidewalk and approaching pedestrians. Reluctantly, we both decided that it would be best to wait until the morning there. If nothing else, sitting helped to relieve the pressure on both our throbbing feet and our minds. 

I settled my backpack into my lap and wrapped my arms around it, thinking about how it had none of the weight or warmth of Jana’s body. She was considerably shorter than me; small enough to fit comfortably in my lap. My fingers clenched and unclenched around my bag as I imagined smooth skin in place of coarse fabric.

The couple in the grass lounged with a lazy ease that made me envious. This night was probably romantic to them. They were at home, the woman unbothered by passing men as she lay in her boyfriend’s arms. I found myself hating their comfort until the moment they packed up their blanket and left. Even the proximity of their heterosexuality had felt like it offered more protection than the platonic front Jana and I were putting on. 

Why does pretending always seem safer than it actually feels?

I tilted my head back, staring up at the tops of the multi-level buildings. On the roof of a hotel a few blocks away, the colorful purple lights that illuminated the open windows told me there was a party going on. 

My stomach curled with butterflies, and I felt my skin tingle as I thought about my situation and how (on paper) it sounded fun and adventurous. Two women waiting for the sun to rise in Milan after spending the day exploring northern Italy, traveling from one coastal city to the next. A quick smile passed over my lips as I thought about the story in my head. The story where, with each retelling, I would be sure to edit out the smaller details. Like how every person that walked by seemed slightly drunker than the last. And how I stopped drinking from my water bottle so that it would retain its weight just in case I needed a blunt object.

I looked over at Jana. She was raking her hand through her short-cropped hair repeatedly, staring at the dwindling battery of her phone. Her body was shaking ever so slightly, vibrating on a frequency that I could only imagine matched her heartbeat.

“I have a knife,” she said quietly.

I knew that. She had said it before, in a much different tone. The first time she told me she carried a switchblade, it had been with the confidence of someone who thought they were the kind of person who didn’t take shit from anyone. But with each leering man that took stock of us, I could see questions cross her mind for the very first time: When’s the right time to pull it out? Do I let them know I have a weapon? Where do I aim?

I didn’t have a weapon…save for my water bottle.

After a minute, or maybe an hour, she tucked her phone between her palms and turned to me. 

“We should talk,” she said quickly. Her eyes looked strained and watery as she waited for me to say something.

So, I did. 

I reminisced about the day and being on the water at Lake Como. I made her laugh when I told her how close I came to jumping in, just to get away from the mosquitos. I told the edited version of the story almost exactly as I would tell it weeks later to friends whose only interest would be in the delicious food and scenic views captured for social media. 

When a strange man approached, asking questions we pretended not to hear, I told Jana to tell me about her latest video project. Her mind began working to describe the imagery—beautiful and enviable—that would make the cut, leaving out the moments that didn’t fit the look and feel of the storytelling. 

Moments like the one we were sitting through.

We talked about everything except how we felt. In the darkest part of the night, her hand found mine and squeezed until I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. But I held on, and together we watched the skyline change from deep blue to pale pink.

Then we let go and went home.

In the fall, when we were back in New York, Jana shared the video she had made with me. 

It had all the feel-good vibes of an old home movie with the quality of a film major’s junior year project. There were clips of us laughing against a backdrop of sparkling Mediterranean water. A few quick seconds of me napping on a train, panning over to rolling green hills out the window. Close-ups of gelato. Artistic shots of old Roman architecture. Street performers dancing to live music. All set to light and airy instrumentals that wordlessly told the story of the carefree Italian summer everyone had expected for us. 

Like me, Jana is good at telling travel stories.

It’s all about the editing.

Jasmine Holmes
Jasmine Holmes, BFA, MFA, is an artist who creates drawings through a variety of media. With subtle line work and minimalistic approach to color theory, she creates work that invokes feelings of uneasiness within the viewer. These works are inspired by consumerist culture and its appetite for devouring the colored body. With an emphasis on the Black figure she draws from social constructs, such as race, class, and creed, in order to bring forth an image that both disturbs the viewer and procures contemplation. Her artworks are often about personal contact with Eurocentrism and its effects on the marginalized psyche. The human figure is the centerpiece, taking up space and showcasing a performance of multilayered hyper-visibility within spaces that often marginalize them.
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